The Other Notebook
by David Helwig
It’s one of those long June evenings when the traces of light in the sky hang on and on as you drive home. Soon enough it will be the longest day of the year—as close as time comes to standing still.
We are driving back from John Hopkins’ screening of Timepiece, his almost-completed film about his mother, Hilda Woolnough. The film takes its name from the major installation on which she spent several years toward the end of her life. Hilda died in 2007, but there she was on the screen tonight, larger than life as she created the big prints for the work and discussed the origins of Timepiece and the techniques involved in its production.
The woman we observe has an enduring youthfulness. For me that was the impression she always gave, even when she was afflicted by the cancer that would kill her. She grew older, but she never grew old. Mostly I talked to her at the Farmer’s Market, and the lively, attentive figure on the screen brought her back, amused and amusing, boiling over with the excitement of her work.
Someone once said that Beethoven’s first language was music. Though Hilda was verbally articulate, she always asserted that she thought best with her eyes and her fingers, and John’s film captures that quality. We see her fingers drawing, her bright gaze watching the prints emerge from the work of her hands. In one recurrent image the viewer observes her tall figure swimming, moving through dark water and glittering light, her stroke powerful and graceful.
On the soundtrack her voice talks about time and change, and suggests some of the thinking behind her big installation. I remember seeing Timepiece at the Confederation Centre art gallery; it was like being in a room with many windows, each window a print leading us into a complicated, detailed, iconic universe, richly coloured, often glimmering with a metallic sheen. Even the frames had an unusual depth, decorated as they were with stars, insects, sea creatures.
My only hesitation about the work when I viewed it was the soundtrack. Perhaps if I had gone back more often I would have grown fond of it, but somehow it seemed to me a little irrelevant to the complicated beauty of the visual inventions.
Which raises an interesting question. Hilda Woolnough’s installation was created as an exploration of time, but it is of course music that actually uses time as its means of expression. The Woolnough work uses not time, but space, shape, and colour to evoke developments within a strongly defined pattern, time stopped and questioned. But perhaps art is always impelled by contradiction.
Answering questions after the screening, John Hopkins mentioned that Timepiece is still without a home. Substantial as it is, it would need a large public venue, and both purchase budgets and storage space are in short supply these days. So it waits to be rediscovered by a new audience.
I thought for a moment of Joyce Cary’s novel, The Horse’s Mouth. Gulley Jimson, the raffish hero of that book, is driven, toward the end of his life, to create larger and larger paintings, and his preference is to paint directly on high walls. What may be his greatest work vanishes when the wall on which it is being created is knocked down.
Cary’s book gives a sense of the struggle through which spiritual inspiration finds its shape in the material world, and that is perhaps part of the subtext of John Hopkins’ film and his mother’s most substantial work of art.
Time is unrelenting in its assault. However slow and still they may seem, the long evenings of June are the merest moments in time’s course. We all must hope that Hilda’s richest achievement will find a permanent home. Still, John Hopkins’ film makes clear that her long and daring creative process was, like all art, in many ways its own reward, and her pre-eminent conquest of time.